Ludology, Slavery, and Win States Contextualizing Actions

So this summer I've been catching up on all the video games I didn't have the time to play during the school year. I made it through most of my backlog, Doom was absolutely fantastic, Pillars of Eternity was amazing, and Dishonored 2 was just as good as the first. But one game that stuck with me was Freedom Cry, a standalone DLC for Assassin's Creed 4. This game is possibly the most unintentionally dehumanizing piece of media I have ever seen. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

What is Freedom Cry?

Freedom Cry is an entry in the Assassin's Creed series where you play a black assassin in the mid 1700s whose primary goal is to free slaves and kill slave masters in the Carribean. The game brings up some incredibly interesting arguments both for and against violent revolution, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

The game tries to explore the ideas of abolitionism through its mechanics, and absolutely fails to do so. So I'm here to talk about how Freedom Cry handles slaves.

So What's the Problem?

Mechanically, freeing slaves involves breaking open a cage and protecting them while they run from guards. This can be accomplished by busting into a compound guns blazing, or by sneaking around all stealthy like. While this is a child's idea of what freeing slaves was like, it does try to reinforce a pro abolition message. You are a black man, freeing slaves through the carribean and trying to do what you can to put an end to this abhorrant system.

Pictured: A historically accurate rendition of how slaves were freed
Movies and books tend to go out of their way to show the dehumanizing aspects of slavery, to show the true human cost of chattel slavery. To show how slaves were treated as less than people, as merely instrumental means to an end.

The problem with Freedom Cry is that its mechanics reinforce the underlying assumptions that made slavery possible. The way the game treats slaves is so incredibly dehumanizing that any point the game wanted to make about slavery is rendered moot because of it. 

The core of the problem is this: In Freedom Cry, weapons and powers are unlocked by freeing slaves. No, I'm not joking.
Pictured: See, not joking! 

So, contextualizing this in the context of play, you are freeing slaves so that you can use them to further your own goals. The slaves don't talk to you, you never see them laughing, or farming, or playing. In the context of the game, they are beings locked in cages that you set "free" which add to the counter on the top of the screen, and once that counter gets high enough you get your next goodie!

But what's even worse is that the game treats "warrior" slaves as more valuable. Seen in the above picture, you have two counters: libearted slaves, and "maroons." Maroons are young men who have combat experience who can fight in your revolutionary army.

So let this sink in: The game treats freed slaves as an instrumental resource which you can use to better yourself and further your goals. Further, it treats young, strong, black, male bodies as an extra special resource which are more valuable than other kinds of slaves. Does that remind you of anything?

My point is not that Freedom Cry is racist, merely that these kinds of mechanics can be unintentionally abhorrent.

I understand what they were trying to do, when you contextualize freeing slaves as something that betters the player, the player is incentivized on a mechanical level to do the "right" thing. You are showing "freedom good, slavery bad" in a really really simple light. But by using slaves as an instrumental, mechanical resource, the game unintentionally reinforces the dehumanizing ideology it tries so hard to critique.

I doubt any designer sat down and said "today I'm gonna reinforce the ideology behind chattel slavery." But this game is a prime example of why it's worth examining your biases and the implications of media.

Or maybe I'm just overthinking a video game, who knows.


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